Apple is Not the Only Fruit

By William Brown

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Perhaps it is telling that on the day that Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle, 2015) was released in the UK, so too was Tangerine (Sean Baker, 2015), which tells the story of transgender sex workers in Los Angeles. For, if the former film charts the rise to success of the entrepreneur behind various of the Apple products that now flood the world market, the latter film was made using one of Jobs’ best known products, the iPhone.

Although Steve Jobs has only achieved a modest commercial success so far, it is a film that arrives with significantly greater fanfare than Tangerine, since it stars Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, with supporting roles going to Kate Winslet (Macintosh marketing manager Joanna Hoffman), Seth Rogen (Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak) and Jeff Daniels (CEO John Sculley), among others. It is also directed by Oscar winner Boyle, with the script inked by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing (USA, 1999-2006) and The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010) fame. Tangerine, meanwhile, enjoys no recognisable stars, and was made for a modest US$100,000.[1]

In this brief essay, however, I would like to suggest that the first film depicts the new media world as one characterised by ‘business as usual’, while the second film explores in a more meaningful way what it is that new media devices like the iPhone can do – for cinema if not more generally.

Business as Usual

I have argued elsewhere that Sorkin’s version of the life of Facebook (co-?)creator Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in The Social Network depicts a world full of the potential for change as a result of new media platforms, but which ultimately is stifled by the old-fashioned desire of Zuckerberg (as depicted in the film) to be recognized as the sole author of Facebook, with that authorship being linked to a desire to be ‘cinematic’ (Facebook used to have at the foot of each of its pages the legend ‘A Mark Zuckerberg Production,’ as if the site were aspiring to be a film). That is, rather than being the creation of a new commons, The Social Network depicts the invention of Facebook as a tragedy regarding the inability of its chief protagonists to overcome the notion of private property, the desire for money and in some respects the desire to win attention (the film ends with Zuckerberg hoping that his ex-girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), has replied to his friend request).[2]

In many respects, Steve Jobs tells a similar story. Set over three product launches that span 14 years, the film presents to us an ego-, if not megalo-, maniacal Jobs, who bullies his employees and who insists upon his centrality to Apple, all the while speaking with an idealized eloquence and condescending wit. In the first sequence, set in 1984, we see Jobs in particular taunt Apple engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) to ensure that the Apple Mac says ‘hello’ to users when it is turned on for the first time in front of an audience at the Flint Center at De Anza Community College in Cupertino, California. Next, we see Jobs spar with Wozniak and Sculley in San Francisco in the build-up to the launch of the NExT Computer in 1988; Jobs was fired following the failure of the Macintosh, with Wozniak reportedly bad-mouthing Jobs in the press. Wozniak accuses Jobs of not contributing anything to Apple, with the latter comparing himself to the conductor of an orchestra, before Sculley explains how he did not have Jobs fired (the popular myth), but that the latter brought about the end of his relationship with Apple himself. Finally, at the launch of the iMac in 1998, Jobs, now back at Apple as CEO, tries to make amends with his daughter, Lisa (played at this point by Makenzie Moss), while also falling out with Hertzfeld, who has paid for Lisa’s university fees after Jobs has refused to do so. Throughout each sequence, we also see Jobs verbally tussle with the long-suffering Hoffman, among others.

How is this a story about ‘business as usual’? Well, firstly the film seems equally to be about authorship. It is not that the contributions to Apple of Wozniak, Hertzfeld, Hoffman and Sculley are denied in the film, but the trajectory also suggests that Jobs is an almost misunderstood genius without whom Apple would never have taken off. Wozniak is stuck in the past since he feels that computing should involve its users creating their own add-ons and modifications to the machine – since this was, after all, what allowed the Apple II to have great success. Jobs, meanwhile, pushes for a computer that might say hello, but into which one singularly cannot enter to modify, and which does not speak to other machines.

To be clear, Sculley is presented to us as an advocate of the Newton, a handheld device the modest sales of which also contributed to his exit from the company. Jobs, on the other hand, explains to him that the device was never destined to work because it required users to manipulate a pen-like device, while the human hand has five working digits, which should all be utilised for optimum user-machine performance. In other words, Jobs might advocate a computer that one cannot penetrate and which does not speak to others, but this is apparently in the name of a quest for machines with which users can intuitively interact, as opposed to as a result of extended training (computers for everyone and not just for nerds like Wozniak). Laudable as the latter is, Jobs still single-mindedly pursues this goal with the aim not of freedom of information, but in order to get rich. What is more, Jobs repeatedly refuses to acknowledge the contributions of others, preferring himself to be the centre of attention, even though he cannot programme.[3]

If Jobs presents himself as the ‘author’ of Apple, with the film suggesting via his time away from the company at NExT that Apple cannot exist without him, then Jobs conversely refuses repeatedly to recognize the existence of his daughter, Lisa. That is, he fathers Apple as a business, but he does not father his own child. In the first sequence of the film, he outright refuses to consider her his child, even though he uses her to demonstrate the ‘intuitive’ interface of MacPaint. In the second sequence, he continues not particularly to want to see her, while in the third sequence he has refused, as mentioned, to pay for her university tuition, even though he is a rich man.

Now, in some senses Steve Jobs is about the eventual recognition by Jobs of his fatherhood and his reconciliation with his daughter. At the end he comes through for her, promising not only to pay for her tuition, but also to invent for Lisa a machine that will put music in her pocket (a nod to the iPod). What is more, it is in spending time with Lisa that makes Jobs late for the iMac launch – even though he insists on not running late at all for the other two (unsuccessful) launches. In other words, the film might seem to suggest that it is in relaxing his contempt towards others that Jobs becomes more human, and thus more successful.

And yet, Jobs only speaks to Lisa because Hoffman threatens to quit if he does not, implying both that Jobs needs Hoffman, a woman, but also that he would not have had time for his daughter had Hoffman not forced him to see her. While the film does offer a semblance of a ‘happy ending’, therefore, it is one based simultaneously on Jobs as patriarch/father, but also with Jobs arguably accepting Lisa only in order to hold on to Hoffman. Jobs depends on Hoffman, it would seem, while otherwise spending most of his time refusing to recognize the legitimacy not just of Lisa as his daughter, but of women as thinking agents in general. Jobs’ ex-wife Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) bears the brunt of this attitude, coming across both as a nag and as a stupid, irresponsible hippy – with Lisa needing a strong male in her life in order to ‘properly’ develop – as if Chrisann were an unwanted hangover from Jobs’ own ‘hippy’ past, which now he wishes to forget as he becomes a businessman. Jobs may soften towards Lisa, in other words, but the film would seem still to present a patriarchal society in which women’s contribution is unrecognized and/or occulted… as usual.

Old-fashioned Form

Viewers of Steve Jobs quickly notice that the film not only possesses an archetypal three-act structure via its three product launches (this is ‘narrative cinema as usual’), but that the film also constitutes something of a ‘backstage technological’, a contemporary equivalent of the backstage musical, but this time focused not on the entertainment but on the tech industry. Is this done in order to take us ‘behind the scenes’ and to lay bare the machinations of the tech world? Perhaps. But just as the iMac comes in a transparent box in order to give us a sense of knowing how the machine works, this gesture towards sharing or providing insight into Jobs is illusory; seeing that the iMac is made up of wires and other components no more helps us to understand that computer as seeing that Jobs and his colleagues are more than just their mediatized personae. Or rather, so much do Sorkin’s verbal fireworks and the smoothness of Boyle’s direction help to aggrandize Jobs (like Zuckerberg before him) as a ‘natural’ genius – he is always that clever, and not just onstage when performing – that we somehow never get past the surface of the film’s central character.

No doubt, the film might be making the point that Jobs is all surface in a world that is also all surface – humanity’s lack of depth being the central insight of the so-called postmodern era. In addition, Steve Jobs might also suggest the related notion that the human capacity for performance is not reserved for moments when the houselights go down and the spotlight is illuminated; humans are always performing in one respect or another, both front- and backstage. But the speed of wit suggests here an idealised sense of performance, with Jobs as consummate performer, or genius, hence for this reason worthy both of the adulation he receives and of the economic success that he achieved in his lifetime – as opposed to a human being existing in an entangled network, dependent on others and in some senses the beneficiary of good timing and/or luck, rather than the teleological master of a history of computing who was so strong that eventually he bent the whole world towards his will. In other words, Sorkin/Boyle present to us a consciously theatrical rendition of the good, old-fashioned male hero – not a member of, precisely, the network society.

The film does make a lot out of the fact that Jobs was given up by his biological parents and adopted. Potentially this only adds to the Jobsian heroic mythos – he was so amazing that he transcended his genes – while also giving us (and Jobs himself) a chance to psychoanalyse him (he wasn’t ‘just amazing’; he was driven by a need for love based upon an initial rejection, or what the film terms a need for control after not initially being in charge of his destiny). Even if based on a truth (Steve Jobs was an adopted child), this trope nonetheless plays out here in an equally old-fashioned (‘as usual’) kind of way, not least because it links Steve Jobs (meta-)cinematically to the film that also seemed partially to inspire The Social Network, namely Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). For, Charles Foster Kane (Welles himself) was also given up for adoption by his parents. But as Kane inherits from his biological parents, and thus in some senses has his greatness thrust upon him (a greatness that he tries to destroy by going into journalism, only to discover that wealth is almost impossible to lose when accumulated in such vast quantities; wealth as tragedy), Jobs wins his money for himself (no recognized contribution from others; wealth as success). What is more, where Kane presents to us the impossibility of discovering its lead character via a series of flashbacks from different perspectives (Kane as network narrative), Steve Jobs presents to us a singular narrative, with the journalist-investigator here (John Ortiz as GQ reporter Joel Pforzheimer) not perplexed in the same way as Kane’s Thompson (William Alland) regarding the real identity of his subject. Finally, while Welles did not name his lead character William Randolph Hearst, Sorkin and Boyle have named their lead character Steve Jobs. Again, it is potentially ‘postmodern’ for the film to want to conflate the ‘real’ with the ‘theatrical’ Jobs. But the effect seems to be that Steve Jobs simply ‘prints the legend’ regarding its lead character, rather than deconstructing or calling into question how or why a legend precisely is created. [4] Arguably it is old-fashioned/business as usual to refer to a classic like Citizen Kane, but even Kane poses questions about the reliability of its lead character who does exist in a network, while Steve Jobs is significantly more old-fashioned/business as usual in asking us to accept Jobs as willful agent – even though he emerges in the era of the computerized, network society.

Finally, in passing from an opening sequence shot on 16mm, to a middle sequence shot on 35mm, to a final sequence shot on digital, Steve Jobs would seem to suggest that its lead character’s would-be humanisation (as he comes to acknowledge his daughter… under duress) is reflected in the technological construction of the film. That is, the digital is tied to Jobs learning how to be a father and a kinder man. Here we might compare Steve Jobs to another recent backstage film, namely BiRDMAN: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014). For, while Boyle’s film maintains a relatively steady cutting rate regardless of the format in which the film is shot, Iñárritu’s film masks all of its cuts in order to present to us a film in which stage and real life, dream and reality and sanity and madness form a single continuum, such that we cannot tell the two apart. That is, BiRDMAN is redolent of the potential in the digital age for the deconstruction of old-fashioned masculinity and patriarchy, where Boyle’s film may employ digital tools, but it does so simply to offer up reiterations of what has come before. Indeed, rather than opting for the high-end Arri Alexa as the camera for the film’s final act, one wonders that Boyle might have shifted ‘downwards’ in the perceived hierarchy of filmmaking technology and shot his final sequence on an iPhone or using FaceTime (rather than 16mm-35mm-Alexa, a more formally challenging, as opposed to money-seeking, Steve Jobs might have progressed 16mm-DV-iPhone).

Entertaining as it is, if Steve Jobs does not do much to challenge what I am terming ‘business as usual’ (patriarchy, individual human as opposed to networked agency, wealth as power, i.e. capitalism), then perhaps we can turn briefly to Tangerine for a glimpse of a different worldview, and the potential for tools like the iPhone to give us access to it.

Apple is Not the Only Fruit

Pforzheimer asks Jobs at one point whether his company was named after the poisoned apple that the founder of contemporary computing, Alan Turing, ate when he committed suicide. Jobs wishes that this were so, but it was not. (Nor was it named after the Newtonian apple that confirmed gravity – perhaps fitting since the Newton nearly grounded Apple.) Instead, even more appropriately, his company was named as a result of feedback from market research (Apple as capitalist from the start). While Turing has of course had his own somewhat conventional film recently made about him (The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum, 2014), the reference nonetheless points to a world of alternative, if persecuted, sexualities, and to the way in which the computer has arguably been tied since its origins to a queer, as opposed to straight-patriarchal, worldview.

Tangerine, meanwhile, would seem to extend this alternative worldview, by using the Apple product in order to give us an insight, as mentioned, into the world of transsexual sex workers in contemporary Los Angeles. Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) comes out of prison to discover that her boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has behind her back been seeing a cisgender white woman, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan). With best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), the two scour Los Angeles on Christmas Eve in search of Chester in order to get to the bottom of matters, while also encountering Armenian taxi driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian), who is sweet on Sin-Dee. [5]

The film uses the iPhone aesthetic (handheld, ‘raw’ images) in order to offer an intimate account of a would-be ‘seedy’ world. But while Tangerine does have a somewhat hallucinatory aesthetic as the camera phone and the main protagonists rush about Los Angeles in search of Chester, and while the film clearly places an emphasis on the lack of money that these characters have (even taking the bus can be beyond their means), nonetheless the film does offer to us a sort of queer community. This is not just a result of the trans characters that we encounter along the way, but also the way in which Sin-Dee, Alexandra and Dinah oddly bond (mainly over a crack pipe), while the film’s final showdown featuring the above, Chester, Razmik, and even his mother-in-law (Alla Tumanian), also suggests connection in a networked world, as opposed to isolation. This is mainly achieved by the near-constant threat of violence, which in the end amounts to nothing. The film’s characters are poor and lonely, the overlooked of society, precisely the sorts of people who do not appear in big budget movies, but who might begin to be visible on the non-cinematic small screen. And yet they are together and they talk, and friendship and desire take on a whole new colour spectrum beyond the ‘cool’ pastels of Steve Jobs and the highly technologised bourgeoisie.

In a risk-adverse film business, it would stand to reason that one would avoid giving large sums of money to filmmakers to make stories about non-cisgendered peoples, even if they live right on the edge of LA-LA-land. For, such stories do not present an easy return for the investor in a world dominated by straight, heterosexual and patriarchal thought. Such stories are, indeed, not cinematic, given that capital and cinema are intimate bedfellows, as Jonathan Beller has discussed.[6] To affirm as much, it is notable that central to Steve Jobs is the role played by Ridley Scott’s famous Apple commercial, 1984 (1984). Although aired primarily on television (during the Superbowl), the advert via its director, its expense, and its iconography – it was clearly influenced, inter alia, by Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1929) – suggests the aspirations of Apple to be cinematic, even though we are told in the film that shareholders did not know what it was advertising. The advert failed in that the Macintosh nearly brought Apple to its knees. But that the film’s Jobs ultimately is proven right suggests that people are not interested in products themselves (1984 does not advertise a product but a lifestyle), but in the precisely cinematic image that accompanies the product and in which the product’s users can by extension share. Capital is, thus, cinema. By contrast, and to return to Tangerine and other non-commercial films made with the iPhone, the unusual, non-standard, and non-business-oriented stories – and communities – that they can present take place paradoxically through the tools not of cinema but, precisely, of non-cinema (the iPhone and not the Alexa).

Arguably, we can read into the relative theatrical success of Tangerine, the way in which cinema – as a location for screening films and as a goal towards which one aims when making audiovisual work – remains at the perceived top of the hierarchy of the audiovisual ecology. Indeed, one might suggest that the ubiquity of cameras, including on phones, suggests the hegemony of the cinematic over all other forms of engagement (physical, not visual, for example). After all, why else would we celebrate the economic success of the film as it recoups seven times its budget? However, what we see in Tangerine is perhaps not just the aspiration of people who barely can be defined by the standard language of he and she (they present a challenge to language as patriarchy?) to be or to become mainstream. Instead (and to mix metaphors), what we see in Tangerine is simply the tip of an iceberg regarding the potential of what the iPhone can do in terms of democratising audiovisual culture and the hierarchy of the audiovisual in the age of new media (with its ‘hallucinatory’ qualities, Tangerine uses the iPhone to present a film that we feel as much as, if not more than, we simply see). Cinematic, we might nonetheless say that the film points to the potential of non-cinema to challenge the hegemony of cinema and capital – in spite of the very cinematic and capitalist values that we find ascribed to the CEO of the iPhone’s parent company in Steve Jobs. Indeed, if Tangerine teaches us anything (and the film is not beyond ‘flaws’, whatever those may be), it is that Apple/capital is not the only fruit – even if these are people who are all struggling to make ends meet. To end with a reference to another of history’s most famous apples, the logic of Apple is to damn the woman for eating the forbidden fruit and to erect the hegemony of the man. Tangerine, meanwhile, tells us that there are many other and delicious tastes out there – and that if we are prepared to eat them, then we may yet find our way back to Eden.


[1] At time of writing, Steve Jobs has made US$22.8 million against a reported budget of $US30 million, while Tangerine has made US$700,000 – seven times its budget.

[2] William Brown, ‘Becoming Cinema: The Social Network, Exploitation in the Digital Age and the Film Industry,’ in Ewa Mazierska (ed.), Work in Cinema: Labor and the Human Condition, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 48-67.

[3] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe Jobs as a ‘salesman’ and a ‘speculator’, who is neither innovative nor creative; see Hardt and Negri, Common Wealth (Cambridge, Mass: Balknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2009), 297.

[4] The term ‘print the legend’ is a reference to another classical Hollywood film that like Citizen Kane is invested in deconstructing, as opposed to in erecting, myths of heroism and masculinity. In that film, the evil Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) is shot by Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). However, the world believes that it was Ransom Stoddart (James Stewart) who killed Valance. While The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford,1962) is structured around Stoddart’s version of events, given in flashback, at the film’s end Soddart’s interviewer decides that it is better not to tell the truth, but to ‘print the legend’ (of Stoddart, not Doniphon).

[5] Being set on Christmas Eve, Tangerine also recalls a classical Hollywood film, namely It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946). Capra’s film involves a fantasy of anti-capitalist community and resistance as the people of Bedford Falls work together to stave off the monopolistic intentions of arch-capitalist Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Tangerine, meanwhile, takes as given the capitalist world in which its characters struggle to survive; their resistance lies not via angels and the traditional family, but in the creation of new, unconventional bonds.

[6] Jonathan Beller. The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle (Lebanon, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2006).

Bibliography

Beller, Jonathan. The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle, Lebanon, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2006.

Brown, William. ‘Becoming Cinema: The Social Network, Exploitation in the Digital Age and the Film Industry,’ in Ewa Mazierska (ed.), Work in Cinema: Labor and the Human Condition, edited by Ewa Mazierska, 48-67. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Common Wealth, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2009.

Filmography

1984 (Ridley Scott, USA, 1984).

BiRDMAN: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014).

Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, USA, 1941).

The Imitation Game, (Morten Tyldum, 2014).

It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946).

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962).

Metropolis (Fritz Lang,1929).

The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010).

Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle, 2015).

Tangerine (Sean Baker, 2015).